“Writing happens when it happens”: On Balancing Motherhood and Being an Author
Prudence Peiffer on Art and Life
This sentence was a hostile negotiation. It’s nine a.m. on a rainy Saturday morning; I’ve been up since six, which is three prime writing hours already lost. But I’ve struck a deal and I can leave my family—my five-year-old already drawing a crying princess without a mother, my potty-training two-year-old dragging against my leg, my eight-month-old down for his precious, long morning nap after an angry bout of tummy time and a greedy nursing session—and head to the little room where I write.
It’s the size of a walk-in closet and called the “sewing room” because when this house was my grandparents’, it was my nana’s room, wholly occupied by a wobbly green desk that converted into a sewing machine. The furniture’s primary function was clear by design: configured as a desk, the sewing machine lurked upside down beneath its smooth surface, banging against one’s knees.
My nana had five children, then went back to school to get her English doctorate, writing her dissertation through the night about middle-class European women’s everyday lives in the eighteenth century. The sewing room knows about compromise and efficiency, about being a space for self or family depending on the hour.
This is the room where I am writing from now, and where I wrote most of my book, The Slip, about a group of artists who lived for a short time in the 1950s and ’60s in former sailmaking lofts on Coenties Slip, one of the oldest streets in Manhattan, and how that street’s history changed the art they made, and how the art they made changed history. Two of the artists, Agnes Martin and Lenore Tawney, told a third, Ann Wilson, not to have children because it would take away her freedom to make work. (She ignored this advice, but not without sacrifice.)
They each lived alone in spaces stripped of the typical domestic spheres of women’s work and outfitted instead for their art, which in Tawney’s case meant woven forms that sometimes spanned more than twenty feet. Mid-twentieth-century New York was an era of retrenched conservatism; Martin and Tawney’s independence was rare for women, especially in an obscure corner of the city empty after five in the evening except for itinerant sailors.
Two other artists—the painter Jack Youngerman and the actress Delphine Seyrig—lived at the Slip with their very young son Duncan. At the time that I was interviewing Youngerman for my book, my oldest daughter, then a toddler, was the same age as Duncan had been when Youngerman rigged a swing to the rafters of his attic studio for him to sit for hours.Two of the artists, Agnes Martin and Lenore Tawney, told a third, Ann Wilson, not to have children because it would take away her freedom to make work.
But often the only time Youngerman had to paint was at night, foregoing any natural light, when his young family was asleep one floor down and he had the quiet space to work. Seyrig wrote letters home to her parents in Beirut describing the strange, intimate life they’d made along the East River, even as they struggled to support themselves and she wondered when they might have any kind of creative breakthroughs. She was trying to find herself while transforming into dozens of other people at theater auditions.
Most of her days were spent walking Duncan in his stroller around the Battery, watching tugboats and ocean liners slide past—beside the city’s brisk current, she felt stuck. She was torn between her ambitions as an actress and the demands of being a mother, and she wrote about this often to her own mother.
In the first years of a child, there is so much waiting in your day, so much time taken up doing so little, and yet so little time for yourself. As the writer Rachel Cusk flatly put it, “looking after children…is isolating, frequently boring, relentlessly demanding and exhausting.”
I only have another hour today to write, and all I can see is the cedar outside the window waving its wet, floppy branches in the breeze, the dead elm beyond where crows like to congregate, sometimes scared away by the neighborhood osprey who I half expect to spear its catch on the barbed branches. Ospreys choose these leafless trees for their perch so that they can have a 360-degree unobstructed view of the world around them, a perspective impossible from my own seat.
I can hear my two-year-old crying for me at the foot of the stairs. What can I say here that has more importance, more priority, than listening to my child?
My book coincided with a lot of things in the world that took priority: the birth of three children, a full-time job at the Museum of Modern Art, a global pandemic, protracted bouts without childcare, with sickness, and with me and my husband working jobs that only became more demanding with the world sheltering in place. I wept when I received a grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation halfway through writing my book (though at that point, it was impossible to tell where I was in the process).
It was, I realized, the first time I’d been publicly acknowledged as a writer, as someone writing a book. Maybe I was the last to allow myself this designation. The grant let me take an extra month of maternity leave from my job to write. Everyone has different postpartum experiences: I didn’t feel like writing. I didn’t feel like there was anything left to come out of me. But this was the only time I had; I knew from experience it would only get harder as the baby grew older and slept less, so I made it work.
The dilemma of the writing mother is not a new story; it is written into the private journals of the “ordinary” eighteenth-century women my nana studied; it’s Mama Pig closing the door on her son to write on her typewriter in Richard Scarry’s Busytown. It’s the subject of some of the most discussed fiction and non-fiction of our time, from Cusk to Alice Walker, Sheila Heti to Sylvia Federici.The struggle to have children, the struggle once you have them—I am trying to be more honest, and allow that this is different from complaining.
Every wave of feminism washes new stones onto the beach to pick up carefully and add to the bucket we drag along: the right to not have a child; the right for a Black woman to have a child with the same medical attention as her white counterpart; the guilt of being a mother but also wanting freedom. The pandemic brought everything into more acute focus in the United States as mothers suddenly could not rely on school, daycare, childcare, lost their jobs or were expected to work out of their homes without interruption, labored in masks and had babies in the hospital without partners—The New York Times dedicated a whole section to mothers screaming into their closets.
Two decades earlier, the artist Moyra Davey collected many of the best essays around writing and motherhood in Mother Reader (2001), which was recommended to me by another mother writer, Aruna D’Souza, on Instagram, where I was posting my muddled #readingwhilenursing and #readingmostlywomen lists in the early days of my first daughter’s birth. I’m comforted by writers and artists who I know and do not know talking about how difficult it is. It’s a form of company to stumble upon an honest anecdote in a book, an interview, a post.
The struggle to have children, the struggle once you have them—I am trying to be more honest, and allow that this is different from complaining. I wish it felt like more had changed over the centuries, or even the past three years. I wish it wasn’t a bucket of awareness we all are just expected to carry, no matter how heavy, and make work; I wish that childcare and maternal care—hell, just care—was a factor in every policy and job, was the thing that decided elections, raised or toppled companies, was the measure of a country’s wealth. I wish everyone could have as supportive a partner as I do. I wish that was enough.
I write in the leftover hours of the day, and even then, I know it’s a privilege. My children have brought a certain focus to this time: they have made it more precious not only because I have so little of it, and I must wrangle and seize and hoard it like a hawk with her fish. But also because my kids tear through time like it is nothing. They learn dozens of words in a single day; they leave notes that are novellas on the bedside table; at two, they suddenly say things like “this rainy window looks like a slice of watermelon,” and you think, my god, the rain drops look exactly like watermelon seeds. How does writing come so easily to them?
Spending any time I can snare writing also means I’m keeping myself away from other important sources for writing well: reading; seeing art; sleeping. During his time at the Slip, Robert Indiana’s journals were filled with the plays, movies, concerts, and art exhibitions he attended, and the friends he met up with for meals (with menus recorded too). Tawney’s daily routine was solitary, though she did gather artists, musicians, and writers together regularly for salons in her loft. Her notebook pages are cramped with transcribed quotes from the many books she was reading, including the Bible and Tao Te Ching, words from Ananda Coomaraswamy, Tolstoy’s diaries, Samuel Beckett on Proust, and Rilke’s poetry.
One gets the sense that Indiana and Tawney could fill every hour of their day with ways to nurture their creative mind. Seyrig’s notes home are more urgent entries of life with a family, written in bursts of interrupted time over a week: she mentions the irony of not being able to make ends meet and then going to pose nonchalantly for a modeling session as if she hadn’t a care in the world; she mentions again and again her and Youngerman’s exhaustion, which only escalates when she gets a part in a play and has to juggle rehearsals and caring for Duncan. And she worries that she will have “lost years for nothing.”
A certain amount of time given over to writing does not mean a certain amount of time occupied by writing. Writing happens when it happens, just like temper tantrums and sleepless nights. It’s the not knowing inscribed into Seyrig’s letters to her mother, the midnight painting sessions of Youngerman—what if no roles come from the auditions? What if no paintings grow from the small sketches feverishly worked on at two a.m.? Would it be worth the precious time taken? And how do we even measure that worth?Writing happens when it happens, just like temper tantrums and sleepless nights.
Those outside of parenting can sometimes see its gifts, rather than its casualties, most clearly: Youngerman and Martin were talking on the sidewalk of the Slip one day when Duncan came running up and put his arms around his father’s knees in an exuberant hug. Martin looked down and said, “Children spoil their parents.” The punch clock doesn’t care if my writing ever finds an audience; it is just there to log the opportunity I had, the hours I took, away from the people I love most in the world.
The true cost of this sacrifice of time is that one cannot be sure of what comes next other than more sacrifice. I’m given a morning, but nothing comes, so I start describing the view out the window just to put something down. I start googling osprey mothers to see if there’s a metaphor there that can tie everything together neatly. Or the words fall into that magical current that pulls me in and under and I am starting to get somewhere.
Then a knock on the door brings me back: here is my beautiful son being handed over, asking so little of me, just a few ounces to stay alive. And that is the perpetual sentence of a writing mom.
The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever by Prudence Peiffer is available via Harper.